Tag Archives: coalition

Ex-government minister Norman Baker on the Coalition & mad Prime Ministers

The Reform Club, with Norman Baker |(centre)

Reform Club, with Norman Baker (centre)

Politician Norman Baker served 28 years in elected office – 18 as an MP. He lost his seat at the general election in May this year.

In 2010, as part of the Conservative & Liberal Democrat Coalition government he was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport.

In 2013, he was appointed Minister of State for Crime Prevention at the Home Office. That means he was based at the Home Office, preventing crime – not that he was preventing crime happening within the Home Office.

In 2014, he resigned, citing conflicts with Home Secretary Theresa May.  (Bear this fact in mind later.) He was quoted as saying that being the only Liberal Democrat at the Home Office was like being “the only hippy at an Iron Maiden concert”.

The music analogy is not random. For the last 20-odd years, he has been lead singer and lyricist for The Reform Club, a band which he describes as playing “retro-1960s pop” music.

There is a video of them on YouTube, performing at Piccadilly Circus in 2013.

“Did you want to be a rock star?” I asked him yesterday in Soho.

“No,” he told me. “That’s a ridiculous thing to want to be. I just wanted to have some fun. It’s a therapy, a release. It’s like playing pinball. I’ve got a pinball machine.”

“I have never,” I said, “seen the point of playing pinball.”

“It’s a bit like playing snooker or playing in a band,” he told me. “You just switch off. It’s like meditating for an hour.”

“You are,” I said, “President of the Tibet Society and you were a member of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet. Why?”

“Well,” he replied, “it’s a matter of human rights and justice and trying to take on bullies.”

“But you’ve been quoted,” I said, “as saying: Compromise is a useful thing.”

“It is a necessary thing. No-one gets 100% their own way.”

“But you have to,” I said, “do deals with nasty people.”

“Yes, you do. Sometimes you have to work with them.”

“In the Home Office?” I asked.

He did not reply.

Norman’s books include The Strange Death of David Kelly

Norman Baker’s books include The Strange Death of David Kelly (on the alleged ‘suicide’ of the UN’s pre-Iraq War weapons inspector)

“You seem to be a terribly principled man,” I said. “Don’t you compromise your principles by talking to and doing deals with shits?”

“Well, otherwise,” he replied, “they run the show themselves. People asked why didn’t I resign, why didn’t the LibDems resign from the government? The answer is because all the people you don’t like would be left there and we’d be gone. Do you really want to hand the government over to the people you disagree with most?”

“So you’re a left wing LibDem,” I said.

“Yes.”

“The LibDems have got lost somewhere,” I said. “I don’t know where they are in the spectrum.”

“We need them,” he replied. “We need a liberal voice.”

“So what’s the book you’ve just written? – Against The Grain?”

“It is,” he said, “a political memoir. 1987-2015.”

“Why write it?” I asked. “To justify your time in office?”

Norman Baker with his latest ’tell-all' book

Norman Baker with his latest ’tell-all’ book

“No, to close a door on it. And so the public know what happened. It’s the first Coalition book and shows how it worked. But it was quite selfish of me in a way. It was cathartic, rationalising the last 28 years in my head, putting it in some sort of order and shutting the door on it.”

“Do you have an elevator pitch for the book?” I asked.

“Truthful, controversial, humorous, contrary, pleasingly insulting. That sort of thing.”

“Is that a description of you or the book?”

“Me… Well, both.”

“You have said you’re not interested in going back into politics.”

“I’m not. I have done 28 years in elected office.”

“But, if you’re really passionate about changing things…”

“I’ll do it in a different way. I’ll write books or lecture. Tony Benn famously said he was leaving the House of Commons to spend more time on politics.”

“I’m not an admirer of Tony Benn,” I said. “He was a bit too far up his own arse.”

“It’s a good quote, though,” said Norman.

“Do you think the book you have written will have as big as an effect as being an MP?”

“Probably not.”

“Books are on the way out,” I said. “You can only have an effect if you’re on TV.”

Norman Baker as a LibDem MP “in goverment on your side

As a LibDem MP – “in goverment on your side”

“I don’t have to have an effect. I need to do what I think is right. And I need to put myself first for a bit. I spent 28 years serving the public. I don’t want to sound too grand about it, but that’s the sum of it. You don’t become a LibDem if you are after power; you do it from the ground up. If I can make a pittance writing books or doing music, then that’s fine. I don’t have to be ‘out there’. I’ve done that.”

“The irony,” I said, “is that people became LibDems thinking they would never actually be in power and then they ended up in the Coalition government.”

“We had a big effect. You can see the effect we had, because it’s all being undone by the Tories.”

“What,” I asked, “is the worst thing they’re un-doing?”

“Well, reducing the tax credits is clearly just vicious.”

“It seems to me,” I said, “that, with the tax credit thing, George Osborne is undermining his own chances of becoming Prime Minister. Boris Johnson is going to become Conservative Party leader now…”

“Well,” said Norman, “out of all the candidates, it may sound unlikely but I would rather have Theresa May. At least she’s got principles, even if you don’t agree with them. Osborne is just terrible. Boris is a nasty bit of work and Osborne is just power crazy.”

“But being power crazy is OK in politics, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Well, Osborne is interested in two things: becoming leader of the Tory Party and winning the 2020 Election and everything is being sacrificed to those two ends. That is not in the interests of the country; that’s the interests of Osborne.”

“I think Boris will make a good Prime Minister,” I said, “because…”

“Boris has not been a very good Mayor of London,” Norman told me. “He’s had his back covered by a lot of people. He’s made a lot of mistakes.”

“Why is he a nasty piece of work?” I asked.

“You need to listen to the interview with Eddie Mair.”

(It was on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show in March 2013)

“What does it show?” I asked.

“Well, it shows he’s a nasty bit of work.”

“Did you used to read Scallywag magazine?” I asked.

“Yes, in fact, the guy who wrote it (Simon Regan) sent me some information.”

“About what?’

“About MPs allegedly involved in child sex exploitation.”

“You didn’t live in Dolphin Square?”

“No.”

“The male prostitutes allegedly in that place…”

“That’s one thing, There’s nothing wrong with that. I take the view, if you’re over 18, you can make up your own mind what you do.”

Scallwag 'knew' it was true but it was not

Scallywag had the wrong woman as mistress

“The scandal Simon Regan got wrong, though,” I said, “was the John Major affair with…”

“…Edwina Currie,” said Norman.

“No, the caterer,” I said. “Scallywag wrongly kept going on about Claire’s Kitchen. Everyone was thrown by that.”

“I think it’s nobody’s business,” said Norman. “I feel quite strongly about that.”

“John Major was married, though,” I said.

“But so what?” said Norman. “You’re entitled to a private life. Mitterrand and everyone else has all these affairs and no-one worries about that. The question is: Are you, in public life, doing what you are supposed to do for the benefit of the public? Yes or No? End of question.”

“I think,” I said, “that the problem was John Major was talking about Victorian Values a lot at the time.”

“No,” said Norman, “to be fair to John Major, it was Back To Basics and, by that, he meant things like the Three Rs in education, but it was taken by the press to mean some sort of puritanical view. I don’t think he ever meant that.”

“John Major,” I said, “seems to have grown in stature since he stopped being Conservative Party leader.”

“Well, he is not mad.,” said Norman. “He’s the only Prime Minister in recent times to leave office not mad.”

Margaret Thatcher?” I asked.

“She was hopeless,” said Norman. “She went to the Sistine Chapel with all the other European leaders on some EU trip and they were all in there admiring the Michaelangelos, or pretending to, and there was silence and she barked out: My goodness! How do they keep the floors so clean?”

“That’s surely good PR,” I said. “…I’m the woman next door.”

“Completely gormless, actually,” said Norman.

“Mrs Thatcher wasn’t a great brain,” I suggested. “She got where she got by being really hard working. But no Einstein.”

“She was hard-working,” agreed Norman. “She wasn’t Einstein, but she thought she was in some ways: I’m a chemist, therefore I understand this.”

“By the end,” I said, “she thought she knew better than the public.”

“Yes,” said Norman. “Blair had the same fault. It’s a sign of madness.”

“Blair talked to God,” I said. “and, it seems, God does not always make good decisions.”

“Well,” said Norman, “Blair became a Catholic and, within two weeks was telling the Pope he was wrong, which must take some medal for arrogance.”

“You asked questions in the Commons on UFOs,” I said, “which seems totally out-of-character.”

Animal Countdown - an EP by ‘Norman Baker and Friends'

Animal Countdown – a new EP by ‘Norman Baker & Friends’

“I didn’t ask any UFO questions,” said Norman. “This is a slur put about by my enemies. I asked about expenditure by the Ministry of Defence on a particular area. I was interested in the potential of other countries invading our airspace without being detected by radar. I’m afraid you’ll find that people who want to try to disagree with my arguments seek to character assassinate me. That’s what people do. They’ll go for the player rather than the ball. It’s a standard technique.”

“It must be a relief not being in Parliament,” I said. “You don’t get all that crap.”

“Yes. I enjoyed it and I achieved quite a lot, but I’ve now shut the door on it and I’m feeling rather better for it. The new Reform Club album is out on January 16th. It’s called Never Yesterday.”

YouTube also has an audio track from Animal Countdown – the latest EP by Norman Baker and Friends.

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Edinburgh Fringe BBC News crisis comedy – and without Jimmy Savile!

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Sara Pascoe, Hal Cruttenden and Dan Starkey

Sara Pascoe, Hal Cruttenden & Dan Starkey in Making News

At the Edinburgh Fringe in August, there will be a play titled Making News about a newly-installed female Head of News at the BBC who has to handle a breaking story about the corporation itself, a TV reporter frustrated about a story she can no longer sit on and the fallout from the decisions taken that “threatens to bring down the BBC”.

For non-British readers of this blog:

In 2011, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight conducted an investigation into DJ Jimmy Savile, a former Top Of The Pops and Jim’ll Fix It presenter. The investigation was never screened by the BBC. When allegations of paedophilia were subsequently broadcast on ITV, the BBC was accused of a cover-up and another Newsnight report wrongly implicated Conservative politician Lord McAlpine in the widening child abuse scandal.

Making News has been written by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky, who had a big success at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe with their political play Coalition about a fictional British coalition government. Britain currently has a coalition government.

Robert Khan studied law at university and is now a Labour councillor in Islington. Tom Salinsky studied mathematics and now runs training company The Spontaneity Shop. He also co-wrote The Improv Handbook with Deborah Frances-White.

I had a chat with Robert and Tom at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington last night.

Robert Khan (left) and Tom Salinsky last night

Robert Khan (left) and Tom Salinsky last night in Islington

“Mathematics… playwriting… improvisation?” I asked Tom. “They don’t go together.”

“I’ve always liked problem solving,” he replied, “and plotting a play involves quite a lot of problem solving.”

“You talk about careful plotting,” I said, “but you’ve written a book on improvisation and you run a training company called The Spontaneity Shop. So what’s an improvising-type person like you doing writing scripted plays?”

“Improvising,” explained Tom, “is like solving problems at 100mph. Improvisation’s really about making a series of choices and the delightful thing for the audience is they get to see the moment of inspiration – that moment of creativity – actually happen in front of them.

“The sometimes discouraging thing for the improviser is l’esprit de l’escalier – not thinking of the right thing to do until you’re on the bus on the way home. So, writing a scripted play, you don’t get the rush of instantaneous creativity, but you’re able to revise and improve.”

Making News has a cracking cast of comedians including Phill Jupitus,” I said. “Do you let them improvise?”

“Aahhhhh…..” said Tom and Robert in unison.

“We discourage it,” said Tom. “In rehearsals, anything goes…”

“Yes,” said Robert.

“… but once it’s on stage, it’s discouraged,” continued Tom.

“Heavily discouraged,” agreed Robert.

“Are you frustrated actors yourselves?”

“No,” laughed Robert.

“I am,” said Tom. “Incredibly frustrated as a writer backstage unable to influence events onstage.”

“And you’re both heavily into politics?” I asked.

“I think I’m politically aware,” answered Tom, “whereas Robert is politically active.”

“So why write two plays about politics?” I asked.

“I think it’s interesting to begin with…” started Robert.

Hal Cruttendon & Phill Jupitus in Making News

BBC crisis: Hal Cruttenden & Phill Jupitus with Sara Pascoe

“The new play isn’t party political,” Tom corrected me. “It’s current affairs, but it isn’t party political, whereas Coalition was.”

“We were interested,” explained Robert, “in how a large institution that has to report the news impartially reports bad news about itself.”

“And the strange thing is the BBC does,” I said.

“Oh yes,” said Robert. “I imagine the debates internally are quite difficult.”

“There’s a sort of Catholic guilt about it,” suggested Tom, “that they have to be particularly fearless when they have to report bad news about themselves.”

“Have either of you worked for the Beeb?” I asked.

“No,” said Robert.

“I’ve not been a salaried employee,” said Tom, “but, in my capacity as corporate trainer I’ve worked for all sorts of bits of the BBC – picture research, BBC Worldwide, current affairs… They hired my company for training.”

“Picture research?” I asked, surprised.

“One of their big problems,” explained Tom, “was that the people making the programmes wouldn’t co-operate with them. The conversation would go:

  • We want to take a picture of this big star
  • He’s not available…. 
  • Then we’ll have no pictures of him to give to the press… 
  • Well tough.

…so our job was to go in and help them build stronger relationships.”

“What was the logic,” I asked, “behind saying We’re not going to promote our own thing?

“Well,” explained Tom, “and it’s something we explore in the play… the BBC don’t see themselves as part of one big Corporation. They see themselves as a bunch of loosely-associated but basically independent units all looking out for themselves.”

“It’s true of all large organisations,” said Robert. “You break down into smaller units. It’s the only way human beings can operate… and you then become competitors.”

“So what’s your insight into BBC News?” I asked.

“Well,” said Tom, “we’ve certainly spoken to a few people.”

“But we can’t talk about that,” Robert told me.

“Some fairly senior people within News,” Tom added.

“Have you talked to any of the people you’re parodying?” I asked.

There was a long pause.

“As with Coalition,” said Tom, “we’re not parodying any particular individual. We’re looking at the roles. The hero of Coalition wasn’t based on Nick Clegg. It was an answer to the question What pressures would somebody IN THAT POSITION feel? Likewise, in Making News, we have a Director General, a Head of News, but they aren’t specifically based on any present or past people.”

“And we stress that very heavily,” said Robert, carefully.

“We are looking,” said Tom, “at What does being in that position do to you? When you come under these pressures, how might you react?

“I don’t think we need to do a pastiche of real characters,” said Robert.

“We create our own characters to inhabit those roles,” agreed Tom.

“It could be a tragedy rather than a comedy,” I said.

“Well, the difference is very small,” said Tom. “There’s a quote in the play that Labour governments resent what they see as the BBC’s lofty patrician heritage and try to cut the Licence Fee and Conservative governments think the BBC is a seething bed of Leftie hotheads and try to cut the Licence Fee.”

“If you have a state broadcaster that’s independent,” said Robert, “it’s always going to sooner or later rub-up the elected government the wrong way. And long may that continue.”

Phill Jupitus as the BBC Director General

Phill Jupitus as the BBC’s DG

“I felt sorry for the extraordinarily inept Director General George Entwhistle,” I said, “because he got crucified for saying I didn’t feel it was my position to ask any questions – but that’s the DG’s cleft stick at the BBC. If he interferes in producers’ independence, he’s wrong; if he doesn’t interfere in producers’ actions, he’s wrong.”

“It’s a very, very difficult job,” agreed Robert.

“When did you start writing Making News?” I asked.

“During the Edinburgh run of Coalition last August,” said Tom.

“So before George Entwhistle became DG?” I said.

“Yes,” said Robert. “Way before the Jimmy Savile scandal.”

Operation Yewtree,” added Tom, “cast a slightly distasteful shadow over the idea. We don’t go near any of that sex stuff in Making News. It would have been difficult to make that funny and it wasn’t what we wanted to write about.”

“The stakes are very high for the BBC,” said Robert. “Three Director Generals in the last 20 years have had to resign – essentially been sacked – Alasdair Milne, Greg Dyke, George Entwhistle. That’s quite a dramatic organisation to work for.”

“For a long time,” said Tom, “we were going to cast the Director General as the central figure. By this time, Entwhistle was DG. We thought we’d do A Year in The Life of a DG, ending in ignominy… and then he resigns after 54 days… We’d been trumped by reality! We had to more-or-less start again from scratch at that point.”

“Do you envisage a TV version of Making News?” I asked.

“I don’t think it would be on the BBC!” laughed Robert.

“Why not?” I asked. “They’d be dramatising themselves honestly and fairly.”

“Self-flagellation can only go so far,” Robert said. “Scotland on Sunday asked them about our play and the BBC issued a statement saying: This is not something we would comment on.”

“In Edinburgh last year,” said Tom, “we had both The Culture Show and Late Review come to see Coalition… It will be interesting to see if they turn up for Making News. They may feel completely happy to review it impartially or they may get the hump.”

“In the end,” said Robert, “this is more affectionate than Coalition was. We do hold the BBC in huge respect and affection.”

And so do I.

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“My name is Ozymandias, comic of comics”… maybe

I will need incontinence pads soon.

I thought I’d blogged somewhere before about my theory that most comedians are a combination of masochist and psychopath… and then I thought maybe I hadn’t. And then I was sure I had, but I couldn’t find it. And then I did here. Clearly my memory is going. Not that it was ever very good. I’m sure this Coalition Attacking Libya semi-war thing has happened before. Several times. After a while, all post-Korean wars seem to merge into one.

On my Facebook page a few days ago, I mentioned a Sunday Mail interview with the immensely talented Scots comedian and magician Jerry Sadowitz.

In 1995, when the late Malcolm Hardee was writing his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, I asked him: “Who is the most talented comedian who has not yet made it?”

He immediately said: “Jerry Sadowitz”.

Or, in fact, “Gerry Sadowitz” because, at that time, I think Jerry was still (as far as we could see fairly randomly) alternating between billing himself as Gerry Sadowitz and Jerry Sadowitz.

In the Sunday Mail interview, it was claimed Jerry predicted he will die penniless and lonely and described himself as a failure who had struggled to find work since his last television series almost a decade ago. It sounded pretty downbeat.

Though, in fact, he can fill large theatres, is very highly regarded by the media and, as the Sunday Mail pointed out, he has been voted one of the greatest stand up comedians of all time.

On my Facebook page, one reaction to the interview, from bubbly comedienne Charmian Hughes, was:

“Yes, failure is a strangely seductive and addictive mistress – so much safer and predictable than the vagaries of success. You know where you are when you think you are not going anywhere!”

I agree. I have seen several performers blow their chance of success. It’s as if they have struggled for so long that they know they can deal with failure, disappointment and rejection, but success is a great – and therefore a dangerous and very frightening – unknown. The pain of rejection is like a release of acid in the stomach and, once you know you can survive it, like all strong physical feelings, it can become addictive.

It is something I think I have noticed in a lot of stand-up comics – perhaps it’s something in all performers. There is this inner, outgoing, self-confident need to show-off combined with a sometimes almost paralysing self-doubt.

This can manifest itself in two areas.

One is publicity where the effervescent, outgoing performer is so fearful of being hurt by criticism that they want to hide inside a bag inside a wardrobe inside a cave in a vast impenetrable mountain range. I’ve been involved with more than one performer who refused to do interviews or any publicity which would expose even the most general details of their private self to any public view.

The other area is even more extreme – career self-harm – and it is epitomised, let’s say, by former punk rocker Johnny Rotten walking off I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here! when it became crystal clear he was going to win it. Anyone who knows the comedy business will be able to remember an exact parallel on another TV reality show involving a successful comic on his way up.

I once chatted to that comedian and said, quite honestly though perhaps a tad insensitively, that I did not know why he had not been picked up by TV producers in the past.

“It could be,” he suggested, “that I have a tendency to tell them they’re cunts.”

“That would probably do it,” I had to agree.

It is the conflict between wanting to perform yet being phenomenally over-sensitive and the fear of failure.

Charmian Hughes admits, “I have done a couple of self-saboteuring things in my life. One was not returning the call of a BBC Radio One producer who came up to me after a show and asked me to write for her before that was a fashionable Radio One thing. I pretended it wasn’t my thing artistically but, of course, inside I was afraid I would be shit at it. The result was I slammed that door in my own face.”

Another comic told me:

“It’s like a knot in the pit of your stomach. The fear. You know you’re going to go up there alone on stage and they may hate you. Not your material. It’s not like doing Shakespeare or Alan Ayckbourn where you are an actor in a play. They see the comic up there on stage telling jokes and it is you. Just you. If they hate you, it is because they hate you for yourself. You have to get up on stage to get the attention you want but, at the same time, the last thing you want is attention. You want to be in the spotlight and you want to hide and both emotions are inside you simultaneously.

“That’s what the problem with publicity is. You want everyone in the whole world to know who you are and to reassure you that you are brilliant and better than anyone else. But, at the same time, you don’t want anyone to know who you are: you want to run away and hide, because you are just a little kid standing up there alone, afraid that you will get told off and you are on the brink of crying inside. It’s like a physical knot inside your stomach.”

Charmian Hughes says:

“I remember a kind of exuberant horror at what I was doing and feeling quite angry with the people who wanted to promote me which quickly turned to self pity when they then didn’t. It takes a lot of personal untangling. Of course, all that was in extremis and I would recognise it immediately now… maybe!”

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